Field Trip

The Farm School’s Learn to Farm Program has always included a Vermont farm trip in the summer, and we went up for our annual tour this past weekend. This year’s itinerary included stops at Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Maple Wind Farm in Richmond and Huntington, and Vermont Shepherd in Putney.

We left The Farm School early Friday morning, made a quick stop at the Brattleboro Co-op for supplies, and headed north for a 10am appointment at Shelburne Farms. Head grower Josh Carter met us at the Visitor’s Center, and we spent the next couple of hours checking out their impressive operation. With 1,400 acres of conserved land, Shelburne Farms is a magical kingdom of rolling hills, open pastures and deep forest. The action certainly spreads out a bit over all that land, with cows, sheep and tidy veggie beds coming into view around every turn. We stopped at the Farm Barn to see cheese making, the bakery, and some delightful animals in the barnyard. We took a quick look at The Breeding Barn, with its massive open indoor space and fascinating history. We saw the greenhouses, orchards, sugar-shack, compost area and campers in action picking berries. The visit was a whirlwind, but we got a good sense of the incredible breadth and quality of the work being done at Shelburne Farms.

Our next stop was Maple Wind Farm, which is spread over three properties near the Camels Hump State Park about half an hour south-east of Burlington Vt. Bruce Hennessy and Beth Whiting lead the charge at Maple Wind, and it is quite an undertaking. The heart of the operation is the Andrews Farm in Richmond, where they have built a USDA inspected modern processing and storage facility for the 40,000 pastured broilers that they produce yearly. This new building also includes cool storage for vegetables coming out of their seventeen acres in cultivation. The Andrews Barn sits above the Winooski River, and the property includes beautiful river-bottom pastures where about thirty steers graze to finishing weight. Above the barn, on the other side of Rt. 2, are further high hillside meadows where the rest of the ninety cows and calves graze. Bruce describes their pasture management as ‘soil-first’ and ‘tall-grass-grazing’, and the work they have done to develop the fertility and health of their pastures shows in the vibrant grass and healthy animals. Maple Wind Farm also raises about a hundred pigs for processing each year, and 1000 organic turkeys for the Thanksgiving market. Their home farm, where the whole thing started seventeen years ago, is home to the sows that produce each year’s piglets, bulls for breeding the beef herd, and winter housing for all the animals. Bruce and Beth are very clear in their commitment to producing the highest quality food possible, and they take that obligation to heart. There are no corners cut, nothing is half done, and every single part of every one of the many components of their farm is considered, researched and executed to the highest standard. All of that focus and persistence is in service of their singular goal of super high quality food.

The last stop on our Vermont farm tour, on Saturday morning, was Vermont Shepherd, in Putney, Vt. David Major and Yesenia Ielpi own and operate this historic farm, milking between 150 and 200 ewes twice per day, and producing award winning sheep’s milk and sheep and cow’s milk blended cheese. David’s parents owned and operated a sheep farm on the sight before Vermont Shepherd began, and the current generation of farmers was able to add a neighboring property to bring the whole place up to its current size. They make all their own hay over hundreds of acres, graze several groups of sheep, and manage the whole thing with a team of border collies born and bred on the farm. David took our groups through the entire cheese creation process, from milking the sheep, processing the milk, forming individual cheeses and finally into the cheese cave. We even got a taste of this years batch, and it was wonderful!

Each stop on our tour added to our growing sense of the depth and diversity of the farming community in New England. Every farmer has to find a way to keep their farm healthy and thriving, from the veggies to the bottom line, and the three great farms we toured on this trip offered insights only they could share, knowledge gained only in their experiences, and expertise found only on their farm. Every chance that we have to dig into that process with a farmer is inspiring and precious for our burgeoning new farmers.

Trapping Flies

The middle of Massachusetts is in a drought, and our pastures have turned brittle and brown. We’ve stopped grazing, and now have all three groups of ruminants off pasture. There isn’t really anything to eat, and we need to keep our grazers from doing long-term damage to the pasture plants. The beef herd, our flock of sheep, and our little dairy herd, are in three different locations around the farm, but all three locations share similar characteristics. These ‘yards’ have to have good shade so that every animal can stay out of the sun comfortably throughout the day. We need easy access with water so that we can ensure there is a constant supply for thirsty livestock on a hot day. Finally, we need a close and ample hay supply, since all of animals are now eating purchased hay in place of pasture grazing.

Another concern that these events have raised for me is flies. One of the great side benefits of rotational grazing is the fact that the moving animals get to leave many of the flies behind every time they change pastures. Although this does not eliminate flies on the animals, it does enough to keep the situation somewhat reasonable. However, now that these groups of animals are stationary, the flies have the potential to get out of control. Our animals experience regular face-flies as well as the wide variety of biting flies. We have purchased several different types of flytraps to address this issue, all with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, last week we built a large biting-fly trap that is really interesting.IMG_3245

After some internet research, I found the Horse-Pal Biting Fly Trap, as well as several similar products both commercially made and built at home. I asked students in the Livestock Track to do some thinking and planning of their own as well, and last Friday we set to work trying to build one of these things ourselves. Taking inspiration and design elements from several different ideas, we came up with a trap that, so far, has proved to be effective. It cost us less than $100, we built it in four hours, and it is trapping flies.

This design is based on the observation that flies always fly up when leaving an animal that they have landed on. They can certainly fly down, but only go up and away when leaving their host, or when trying to escape. This trap takes advantage of this trait by enticing them to land on an object that mimics a potential host, and trapping them from above and funneling them into a space they cannot get out of. As they continue their attempts to fly up and away, they are funneled further and further up, and finally into the container on top, where they are trapped to die.

The black ball hanging beneath the trap is a painted horse-ball (sold as a toy for bored horses) which we have painted black. It warms in the sun to attract flies which, looking for a live animal, are drawn to warm dark objects. Once the flies have landed on the ball, they realize it is not what they were looking for, and fly up to leave. The screen pyramid-shaped section funnels them up toward the peak, which finally emerges inside a large re-purposed water-jug. Once they are in the jug, again they won’t fly down to get out, and just head up and away to be trapped against the side and eventually die.

We found a lot of innovative and creative designs out there for trapping flies, but this seemed like something we could figure out and build. So far it has been effective, and the jug is filling with flies. Yum!

Dry days and loose hay

Not much has changed around here in terms of the weather, so the irrigation work continues full speed, the dairy herd, and now also our flock of sheep, are off pasture, and we are currently setting up an area for the beef herd to start eating baled hay too. We’ve had some near misses on the rain, and the forecast for today calls for more than half an inch to fall, but nothing has come down yet.IMG_3194

There are many challenges for farmers growing in New England, with hills and rocks, hard winters, and poor soil. There are many benefits to farming in New England as well, and perhaps the biggest is consistent and abundant rainfall. We don’t have much extreme weather, but we get regular rain throughout the year, and a hurricane once in a while as extra. This spring and summer, with no rain at all, has taken that wonderful gift from us, and we’re scrambling to adapt to these challenging conditions. We have never suspended grazing in the season over the past ten years that I have been here managing the livestock, and we have never irrigated at this pace and for this long either.

We try to make some loose hay every summer, and this work is always a highlight of the season for me. In contrast to today’s haying technology, with large tractors powering PTO driven mower-conditioners, rakes and balers, our loose hay production is a human and horse powered endeavor. Brad and his team mow the tall grass with ground-drive John Deere Big #4 mower from the 1930s.

With quite a bit of restoration work and upkeep, Brad has that piece of equipment cutting better than ever. The mower, with a long sickle-bar of teeth running quickly back and forth, cuts the tall grass off cleanly, and lays it down in a smooth row a few feet wide. (A mower-conditioner, used by most hay producers today, follows the cutting with a series of spinning textured cylinders that crush the hay, ‘conditioning’ it.) The grass lays in the pasture for day or two to dry (depending on the weather), turning from grass into hay, and might be raked or tedded as needed. When its time to collect the hay, Brad and his team pull out the McCormick-Deering hay loader, also from the 1930s (or before). This is another piece of ground-drive equipment, although it is a bit harder to explain than the mower. The frame of the loader is dominated by a large diagonal track going up from the back toward the front, with wooden slats on ropes across for the hay to ride on and a spinning cylinder with metal fingers on the ground to sweep up the hay. The hay rides up the track as it rolls, and is dropped onto the wagon pulled directly in front of the hay loader. A farmer rides standing on the wagon with a hayfork, and distributes the hay, pouring off the top of the loader, all over the wagon for an even load.


This work is slow, the sounds are the creak of the old equipment, the calls of the farmers, and the breath of the horses. This work is fun, and the final product is a giant pile of loose hay in the hayloft (loaded by hand). Loose hay is nice to rest in after a long day, nice to jump in from a height, and our livestock prefers it to all other types of feed. Every time that I find myself working to bring in the loose hay, I am struck by the idea that before diesel and combustion, this is how hay was produced all over the world. There was, and may still be, truly deep knowledge of how to do this work well, and it feels like we have forgotten almost all of it. I watch our farmers doing admirably to keep this work viable, and I know that someone knew, or still knows, this work intimately.

Now that we have groups of animals staying in one place for a bit, we are going to try to build some home-made biting fly traps in an effort to keep ahead of any trouble on that front. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

Dry Weather Continues

The hot dry weather here in central Massachusetts has stretched on for another week, and veggie irrigation has stepped up another level here The Farm School. We’ve got two trailers of water traveling around the farm full time now, powering drip tape on the driest and most sensitive crops to keep them holding on until the rain returns.

The ‘Old Sheep Pasture’ has been baked dry.

We can now cover about seven 300-foot beds per day, and we’ve been focusing on shallow crops and the newest transplants that cannot access moisture in the soil down deep. Baby cabbages, just planted in anticipation of fall harvest, got the full treatment today.

The dairy herd has exhausted their pastures, and we’ve moved them into a holding yard behind the barn to eat hay and rest in the shade. Although hay producers in the area are getting nervous about their next cutting of hay, most had a pretty good first cut. We have been able to secure additional hay, above what we typically buy, and we will use that surplus to feed the dairy herd until their pastures grow back. The beef herd has about ten days of pasture remaining, and then they will move into a similar holding area to eat hay until the grass comes back.

We try to plan these holding areas so that they have easy access for water, there is ample shade so the cows can get out of the sun, and we can easily roll large round bales of hay in. The dry weather puts a lot of stress on the pasture plants, and although there is still some green grass out there, my priority now is to reduce the pressure on the pastures as much as we can in the hopes that they can recover enough for a good late summer and fall of grazing.Grazing more now would wipe them out for the rest of the year.

Our 100 broiler chicks have moved out of the brooder and onto pasture for the summer. They went into two ‘chicken tractors’, which are light-framed wooden houses with no floor, sitting on skids so we can pull them around the pasture.

Patty’s new daughter, Penguin.

Our maturing flock of pullets, next year’s laying flock, is in a chicken tractor out there too, so the three houses are sitting side by side in the sheep pasture surrounded by an electric net fence. The pullets had been under a bit of predator pressure out there, and the addition of the electric netting has eliminated that issue for the time being. We took the precaution of putting the netting around the broiler houses too, just to make sure that those delicious little birds have the chance to grow up.

We are anticipating a bumper crop of blue berries this year, and although The Farm School does not grow blueberries on the farm, we have partnered with Blue Ox Farm, just down the road from us, to tend their blueberry bushes and harvest some of their berries. Both the apple and peach trees look like they will not produce fruit at all this year, so we’re hoping that a strong blueberry harvest can fill our freezers instead.

There is quite a bit of rain in the forecast for today, tomorrow, and through the weekend, so keep your fingers crossed and I’ll let you know how it all goes down.